A Turbulent Week On Campus Shows the Need for Real Dialogue On Race

Business team working together, discussing the different opinions. Teamwork.
Business team working together, discussing the different opinions. Teamwork.

This week, a 272-year-old-institution experienced some growing pains. On Monday, September 21, a student group at the University of Delaware hosted a controversial speaker. Students representing the Black Lives Matter movement peacefully protested the event. Just 24 hours later, a student reported what he believed to be nooses hanging from a tree in front of the Hall where the protest took place. The next day, hundreds of people in the UD community stepped onto the same Green to have an open dialogue about race at UD.

This wasn't what I was expecting when I began planning the fifth annual speaker series at UD called "National Agenda" a year ago. At that time, the country waited to hear whether a New York police officer would be indicted for the chokehold death of Eric Garner (spoiler alert: he wasn't) and was still reeling over the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

In previous years, National Agenda had featured a wide range of political speakers like Robert Gibbs, Karl Rove, Joe Biden, Steve Schmidt, and Chris Christie (the latter three are alumni). We've also hosted the Delaware Debates--including the famous 2010 debate between Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell. The series has introduced students on a campus once deemed one of the most politically apathetic to political issues in engaging and exciting ways.

But I wanted to do something different for the 2015 program. I sought to tackle one of the most pressing political and social concerns facing this nation. Here at UD, students had just been called out for posting anonymous, racist comments on YikYak prior to the football game between this predominantly white institution and the historically black Delaware State University. Then-President Patrick Harker sent a message to the UD community condemning the behavior, and the President of Delaware State's Black Student Union said "It's time for an open conversation about race." I agreed. So I began the daunting task of finding six speakers and selecting four films to show throughout the fall semester of 2015. (You can see the complete schedule and videos of previous events at udel.edu/nationalagenda.)

I knew that it would be hard. I knew that I couldn't personally speak to the many struggles that people of color face in this country. But at the same time, I knew that here was an opportunity to engage Millennials--the most diverse generation in American history--in a candid and civil dialogue about race in this country. I took the challenge that Mellody Hobson proposed in her 2014 TED talk: to be "color-brave." She said such braveness means "we have to be willing to have proactive conversations about race with honesty and understanding and courage."

So I sent invitations to potential speakers, calling on them to help not just the UD community, but the country, wrestle with some of the most difficult topics surrounding race today. . . Police brutality. Mass incarceration of African Americans. Systemic racism. The relevance of the Civil Rights movement. The Black Lives Matter movement. Implicit bias. Stereotypes in the media. This list could go on, and on, and on.

As I created my syllabus for the class that corresponds with the series, I got a glimpse of what it is like to have a black body while reading the moving "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I took a test to identify my own privilege. I listened to stories of Americans having frightening encounters with police and how police officers in some cities are improving relations with their community. I watched college students talk about racial tensions in the form of microaggressions. I explored the history of lynchings in America and how this has impacted race relations today.

In the meantime, I witnessed a White woman who unapologetically passed as a black NAACP chapter president. I read in horror the news about a young man who prayed with and then brutally shot nine people at a historic black church. I saw footage from my hometown of Cincinnati where a man was shot point-blank by a police officer who claimed the victim was trying to flee. Again, the list could go on. But these stories are not isolated. They are part of a much larger problem.

So the time for conversation is now. Racism isn't just a problem for Americans of color; it is a problem for all Americans. The first step is learning how to communicate effectively and to avoid the color-blindess trap; just wishing race away won't solve any problems. A candid and civil dialogue is long past due, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. That's what I hope for this series I'm moderating at UD. At the very least, people will walk away from these events having seen this country through the eyes of Americans who have walked a different path. Might people get uncomfortable? Of course. But such discomfort can lead to real change. As Glenn Singleton points out in "Courageous Conversations about Race," experiencing discomfort is one of the four requirements in frank discussions about race. And let's face it: avoiding discomfort hasn't solved the many micro and macro effects of racism in this country's history. The raw humanity I saw in our students on Sept. 23 demonstrated in a very real way that this conversation is not only essential; it is feasible.

Given this newfound engagement among UD students, it's only appropriate that our next speakers are Netta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson of Campaign Zero and the Black Lives Matter movement. Students will hear firsthand from young activists about how they have spread their message to make change. I'm grateful for the institutional support at UD to engage in these important discussions, particularly to Acting President Nancy Targett, who swiftly and transparently responded to this week's incidents. This institution may be nearly 300 years in the making, but it can and will continue to change. Let's keep the dialogue going.